50 years ago it was Kitty Genovese who couldn’t breathe…

As the tragedy of the death of Eric Garner and the call for action and justice, has played out nightly with demonstrations coast to coast, and cries of “Black Matters” and “I Can’t Breathe” have entered into our cocktail chatter and business conversations, I can’t get the thought of Kitty Genovese out of my mind.

Do you remember Kitty? 

Kitty was a 28 year old woman. She worked as a waitress. One night, around 2am, she was murdered – stabbed and raped – right outside of her own apartment – by a 29 year old man who said he simply went looking for a woman to kill “because they didn’t fight back”, he later revealed. Kitty fought. She screamed. It was a loud, disruptive incident. Yet – no one called or came to help Kitty. Over 37 people later said that they were aware she was being attacked. They had heard her screaming for help.  Each person believed someone else was doing something. Calling for help. Rushing to her aid.  Yet, no one did.

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The social psychological phenomenon became known as the “bystander effect”, and, Kitty had her immortality, in the study of the “Genovese syndrome”, which continues to this day in colleges all across the country.  Literally, books have been written about Kitty – and the syndrome that bears her name.

While a student at Providence College, I studied social psychology.  I became rather fascinated by the development of group consciousness, group mentality, and “diffusion of responsibility”, and the “bystander effect”.  How could it be that one or two people would have more probability, individually, of helping someone than a group would?  How does the instinct to act become dissipated when they see themselves as members of a group?

We see this demonstrated with Kitty, yes.  We also see this on our college campuses when we talk about rape and sexual assault.  Often, the worst take place in fraternities or at parties, where society’s boundaries morph to the new society of the moment.  Where actions one person would never think about, much less act on, become the group’s behavior, and the individual becomes but one cog in the wheel that has been set in motion, with its own outlying concepts of right and wrong, its own shady sense of rules. As but one cell of the whole, the power to pull away is exponentially difficult.

The collective brain often rules.

The study of this has led to some good things.  It only took 25 years or so for CPR training groups to realize that there was a fatal flaw in step #1 – “call for help”.  How many of us were first taught to shout at the downed person, “are you all right” and then to shout out into the air or the group gathered, “call 911”!   Groups that were forever tweaking their CPR compressions, breaths, etc, heard about this, studied it and realized it was true that sometimes no one called for help – each thinking another member of this newly identified group had done so.  New instructions were written that when you called for help you should specifically select one or two people – looking at them directly and address them with a powerful order.  “You! Get help – Call 911 – now!”  What did this do?  It charged the specific person with a specific action.  The burden to do something – to move – was extremely powerful – and effective.  Some others in the group may act, too, but assuring that one person carried the full weight of that charge is now known to be crucial in a successful “chain of survival”.

How can this study – these concepts – help us better understand what happened to Eric Gardner – and offer critical retraining to our police officers?

We know his name.

Daniel Pantaleo. He is the police officer who put Eric Gardner in a fatal choke hold. But do you know who Justin Damico is? He’s one of the other officers. There were four others, too. There were also four EMTs/paramedics.  All told there were 10 “first responders” engaged with Eric that day.  And a score of others watching. The five police officers were given immunity to testify about the choke hold actions of Daniel Pantaleo.  The EMTs were suspended for their lack of lifesaving efforts at the scene, though they were later put back into duty.

Yes, Daniel Pantaleo was the officer who performed the fatal choke hold.  But there were four other officers there in that heap on top of Eric.  Did anyone say, “hey, back off a little, I think you’re killing this guy?”  Was that even a whisper? Or did the “diffusion of responsibility” have a powerful effect to have five officers believing that their actions were justified – there was no individual cry-out because there was no individual any longer – just ‘one of the five’.  Add onto this the layer of Eric being black. Add on to this the layer of poverty – all of this was happening in a poor section of the community.

What questions and answers can the study of group phenomena bring to retraining? Another group has used this information to help stop wrong side surgeries. Collective conscious thinking has been responsible for operating room errors when there was an assumption that the surgeon was cutting into the right appendage of his or her patient – even in the face of serious doubt or question.  It is a strong phenomena that makes an individual, maybe someone low on the hierarchy in the room, frozen from questioning, from saying, “wait, let’s check this again”. It is hoped that by retraining, and allowing all members of the group to have equal voice, this can change. To be effective, there must be a real promise of no repercussion, even if the person is incorrect, and all members of the group must believe that, to be so empowered.

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Did those officers, did Justin, and the four others, and David – approach Eric – with individual decisions that they were going to make this day one Eric would never forget – they were going to take this guy into custody – and if he resisted, they were going to kill him.  Right there, on the street, in front of groups of people, and while being film?

The overlay of race and poverty.

Did race – and bigotry – and fear – and poverty overlay these dynamics making the situation beyond salvation? Of course.  Exponentially so. So, yes, we need to do our cultural education and racial education, and our retraining.  We need to also restore the power of the individual to question tactics, protocols, and moments when common sense has gone haywire. Shoot to kill? Arming our police force like they were at war? Match our law enforcement to the diversity of the community? Teach individual responsibility and empowerment?

“I can’t breathe!”

There were lots of people around Eric.  Lots of people cried out.  But the most important ones who could have stopped it – the officers, themselves – didn’t hear.  They were bonded by a powerful magnet creating one new entity, made even stronger by fear. Each, by their silence to the others, reinforced the actions – the holds, the knee into the back, the smashing of Eric’s face into the cement – the fatal choke hold growing tighter and tighter.  They could no longer see with their own eyes, or hear their own thoughts – and they certainly did not the 11 cries from Eric – “I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe!

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